Herat, Afghanistan (CNN) — As we stroll down a dusty back street in Herat, Afghanistan’s third-biggest city, a high gate made from sheets of rusted corrugated iron and a door that’s bolted shut confronts us.
On the other side of this fortress-like barrier we can hear children’s voices and playful laughter.
When we knock the voices fall silent and a young man comes to the gate. He asks for our names and the purpose of our visit. Satisfied with the answer, the door is unbolted and we’re allowed inside.
Behind the high wall, four little girls — the youngest a smiling two-year old with food on her face — greet us in a concrete-covered courtyard. Garbage is piled up in one corner, while a broken down motorcycle leans against a brick wall.
While this scene may appear perfectly normal, their mother’s story is anything but.
We’re led up stairs to a room with carpets and cushions on the floor — this is where the family eats and sleeps. As the afternoon light streams through the window, Sitara appears. She tries to cover her face with her long beige scarf, but her beautiful brown eyes are visible. So too are the jagged scars — shocking confirmation of the horrific attack she suffered four months earlier.
In December last year, 23-year-old Sitara was asleep on the floor with her daughters when her husband woke her. He needed money for a fix of heroin and crystal meth — an addiction he’d developed over the course of their marriage. When she was married off to him as a child bride at the age of seven, his drug of choice was hashish. But now this man — 20 years her senior — was a full-blown addict.
He wanted to divorce Sitara so he could take their daughters and marry them off for a few thousand dollars for each girl’s virginity. But Sitara refused — this protective mother adamant her children were not going to suffer the same fate as her. She’d reached her limit with his destructive drug use and the monster he’d turned into.
But she didn’t realize just how much of a monster he’d become.
That night he demanded money and a simple ring she was wearing — the only jewelry she possessed. When Sitara said no, he bashed in her head until part of her brain was protruding from her skull. She was almost unconscious. He then pinned her down, got a knife and cut off her nose and upper lip.
“My head was throbbing and he was on top of me, that’s when I saw the knife,” she recalls. I struggled but then blacked out. When I woke up, I tried to touch my nose and lips but I felt nothing.”
Sitara’s girls were asleep except for 10-year-old Somia. I ask her what happened, but her elder sister, Parisa, steps in and explains. “We were all asleep except for my sister Somia. I asked her why didn’t she wake me up? She told me our father threatened her that if she screamed, he would cut her just like our mother.
“My father then tripped over me as he was pulling my mother by the hair. I woke up and started screaming at him. Then he ran away and we never saw him again.”
Mutilated and unconscious
Neighbors who heard the screaming alerted police who found Sitara mutilated, unconscious and lying in a pool of her own blood. She was taken to hospital where doctors managed to stop the bleeding and stabilize her. However, she’d been disfigured so badly in the attack that Afghan authorities decided to fly her to Turkey for more specialized medical care.
That’s where surgeons used part of Sitara’s forehead to construct a new nose, while taking tissue from her thigh to rebuild her upper lip. “When I finally woke up and saw my face, I hated it. I hate it every day. It would be better to be injected with poison and die – that’s how I feel,” she says.
“When my children saw me after my face changed, they didn’t believe I was their mother.”
The Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Afghanistan eventually relocated Sitara and her daughters to their current home — an apartment they share with her mother and three brothers. It’s cramped and basic, and they have few belongings, but they feel safe.
Police have not caught Sitara’s husband — she believes he’s fled into the mountains or crossed the border into Iran.
“I just want the surgery to happen soon. I don’t want to stay like this,” Sitara says. “Will I have the same face as before? Some people tell me I will have a better face. But it’s hard to believe that.”
Sitara’s little girls now seem oblivious to her deformities. They love their mother regardless of what she looks like — though Somia, who witnessed the appalling attack and suffers nightmares most nights, says her mother is sad all the time.
“We just want our mother to get well and smile again. If she works we can go to school and I will become a doctor. Then I can help people like my mother.”
According to a United Nations report published in December last year, Afghan authorities registered an increased number of reported acts of violence against women and girls in 2013 but prosecutions and convictions remain low. The report said the authorities showed a tendency towards mediation rather than applying criminal sanctions and legal protections for women, and this often fails to protect women from further violence.